Category Archives: Hugh Patterson

Better Music Through Chess

It’s 3:30 in the morning and I’ve just gotten back from a club (at the age of 55). I’m in the studio mixing 20 tracks of music for a band that has twenty plus musicians in it. I’ve scored the material which means writing all the musical parts down via sheet music. The song is a tribute to Lalo Schifrin, who did the sound tracks and scores for the Dirty Harry films and a host of other classics. I get a message on Facebook about doing an interview regarding my music. The interviewer asks me to answer one question before the interview the following morning. The Question: “What made you become good enough, as a musician, to be able to do the fully orchestrated projects you now do? It took me a full twenty four hours to answer this question because unlike the fast, glib and snotty answers I gave in my youth, I take my time and think about what I’m saying in middle age. Here’s the gist of what I said:

My music, composing skills, arrangement skills, engineering and producing are all where they are today because of chess. I can only imagine the horror on the other end of this question because the interviewer probably expected the old “I practiced until my fingers bled” party line. What you do in one area of your life often dictates the results in other areas of your life.

Chess really taught me how to look at both the big picture and the little picture at the same time. To win a game of chess, you have to have an overall plan. However, with each move of a pawn or piece, your immediate plan changes. You might have come up with a plan that is three moves long. Yet, your opponent suddenly makes a move you didn’t expect them to make. This forces you to adjust you original plan to accommodate this unforeseen opposition move. This situation occurs in music as well. You write a song. You’ve created the words and music for that song which means you have a plan that dictates just how that song will sound. You then bring the song to your band. They interpret the song differently so it may not sound as it did when your originally wrote it. It may sound better or it may sound differently than your original version. You work with your fellow musicians, making changes here and there until you get what your want out of the composition. The big picture is the original song your wrote, the little picture is the changes that are made during the evolution of that song. Prior to the influence of chess, I held firm in my song writing. It was my way or the highway, as some people like to say. Now, I embrace the changes other musicians bring to the table when it comes to my songs.

Chess also gave me the gift of patience, something I sorely lacked in my youth. When I first started playing, I wanted everything to happen immediately and when it didn’t, I started to lose interest. In fact, a musician I had auditioned for me when I was young called me out on this, on a social media site, which inspired this very article. Today, I am not only used to, for example, having six to seven hour rehearsals, but embrace them because creativity takes time. Patience is a skill that has positive ramifications far beyond the chessboard. Having some patience can be the difference between creating a musical composition of real substance and simply writing yet another passable song. Patience is a skill that will keep your blood pressure down (except in my case, according to my doctor).

Chess and music both share the concept of pattern recognition. In music, there are a seemingly endless combination of notes that can be combined to create a song. However, only a fraction of those notes can be combined to create a catchy tune. There are specific patterns that, when combined, create wonderful music. Proof of this can be found in the majority of rock and roll songs based on three chords, E, A and B. Chuck Berry became a legend based on this simple pattern. In chess, players that recognize patterns on the chessboard win games. Musicians that recognize patterns write great songs.

Where chess has really proven itself as a valuable tool, musically speaking, is in my work doing composition, arranging and recording of orchestrated bands, those that include horn and string sections. My latest band project, The Troubadours of Misery, is a miniature orchestra. Being the the chief writer and arranger, I’m facing technical challenges I’ve never faced. Often, my back is to the wall and I find myself in a tough spot, be it arranging or trying to get just the right tones in the recording studio. Prior to seriously studying chess, I probably would have settled for a technical solution that I wasn’t quite happy with. Now, I look at the problem, then try and relate it to a tough chess position I’ve found myself in or have studied. I keep a laptop with my game database in the studio and will review that tough position and play through the solution. I try to relate each move to the situation I’m in and more often than not, find a solution to my musical problem on the chessboard.

Chess provides many lessons that can be applied to our lives. I’d say that learning lessons from this great game will probably get you a lot father than hiring one of those life coaches (that person you pay a lot of money to so they can tell you what you already know, common sense). One thing that people have trouble with is losing in life. They take a chance, fail and then never try again. If you talk to anyone who is successful (and honest), they’ll tell you it took a number of failures to become successful (not just one). While I’ve had my share of minor musical successes, I’ve had my share of failed bands (and some real stinkers when it comes to songs). Chess can teach you how to deal with loss and embrace it as a learning tool. What can I say, you really cannot go wrong playing chess and learning off the board life lessons within the sixty-four squares. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

How to Study Tactics

Having spent years teaching and coaching young chess players (and oldsters as well), I’ve had the opportunity to not only see breakthroughs in my students playing but roadblocks as well. This is a great age, technologically speaking, in which to learn the game of chess. There are so many training materials available but this vast array of learning tools can make improvement difficult. While there is no “one size fits all” way in which to teach or learn, the beginning chess player often ends up taking on material that is above his or her skill set. Therefore, I’m going to present a few articles on more streamlined methods to studying an aspect of the game, starting with tactics.

Beginners often confuse tactics and strategy so we’ll define the difference between these two very different terms. Strategy is your plan, the end result you’re aiming for in a given position. When I’ve asked beginners what their strategy is, they’ll respond by saying “to checkmate my opponent, of course!” While this is the overall goal of the game, it’s not a strategy. Strategy is the series of plans you create in order to reach your overall goal, checkmating your opponent. If you were a General leading an army, your goal would be to win the war. To do so, you’d have to have a plan, or series of smaller plans, to reach that goal. I say series of plans because in chess, plans that seem plausible in one position, can become obsolete if the position changes in favor of the opposition. Tactics are the actions you take when implementing your strategies. To win a battle, a General might decide that cutting off the enemy’s supply lines will be the best way to win that particular battle. The actions the General takes, such as bombing the supply line using a specific type of fighter plane, is the tactical play. Tactics are key for the beginner wishing to improve, especially when it comes to younger players! What tactics should the beginner study? Here’s a list of the basics:

Forks
Pins
Skewers
Discovered Attacks
Discovered Checks
Double Checks

These are the absolute basics. There are additional tactics such deflection, the decoy, overloading pieces, etc, but the beginner should first become familiar with the previously listed tactics and only then, move on to more sophisticated tactical ideas. Here’s a brief definition of the tactics you need to study as a beginner. A fork can be employed the by pawns and all pieces, including the King. With a fork, one piece attacks two or more opposition pieces. Since your opponent can only move one piece per turn (except when castling), they’re going to lose whichever piece is left behind. This idea alone should enlighten you as to why forks are so useful. A pin occurs when a piece of lesser value is stuck in front of a piece of greater value and both are on a line (rank, file or diagonal) controlled by an opposition piece. Let’s say, as White, your Queen is on d1, your King-side Knight is on f3 and a Black Bishop is on g4 (with the e2 square being void of any material). If you move the Knight off of f3, the Black Bishop will swoop in and capture the Queen. With a skewer, you have a piece of lesser value stuck in front of a piece of higher value and, when the piece of higher value gets out of the way, you capture the piece stuck behind it on the line of attack (rank, file or diagonal). Pins are Skewers are performed by long distance attackers such as the Bishop, Rook or Queen.

Discovered attacks find one of your pieces in line with an opposition piece, except that one of your other pieces is blocking its line of attack. When you move the blocking piece, the attacking piece behind it is free to assault the opposition piece. A discovered check is similar except you deliver check when unblocking the attacking (or in this casing checking) piece. The double check is the most lethal of checks because two pieces are delivering a check to the opposition King simultaneously and, since you can only move a single pawn or piece per game turn, you cannot simply block both the checks!

Learn these basic tactics because, especially at lower levels of play, tactics can be decisive! The next step to learning tactics is to recognize the typical patterns that lead to tactics. A tactical play doesn’t just magically appear. Of course, with so many possible positions occurring within a single game of chess, the beginner looks at the games of advanced players and wonders just how they made those tactical plays happen. Good chess players know to look for certain patterns, the arrangement of pawns and pieces on the board as well as open lines, and exploit those patterns to employ tactics. Certain patterns or arrangements of the pawns and pieces allow tactics to be introduced. Take a look at the example below:

In the above simplified example, after move three for Black (3…Nf6), White sees a pattern forming, a pattern that allows a later tactical play by white, 5. Ng5. White sees that the Black Knight on f6 prevents the Queen on d8 from controlling the g5 square. Therefore, White moves his Knight to that square, setting up the next move (after Black plays 5…d6), 6. Nxf7. This move allows the Knight to fork the Black Queen and Rook. The point here is that White looked carefully at the board and set up his tactical attack. Because the White Knight on f7 is protected by the Bishop on c4, the Black King cannot capture the forking Knight. Beginners should start their pattern recognition training by looking at the Ranks, Files and Diagonals where pieces like the Bishop, Rook and Queen can employ tactics. It should be noted that the Knight is a powerhouse when it comes to tactics such as forks because you can’t block a Knight’s attack. When looking for patterns to exploit for tactics, always check Ranks, Files and Diagonals and ask yourself, “can I use any of these lines for a tactical play. When looking at a possible line on which to employ a tactic, also ask yourself how easily your target square can be defended. In the case of the above example, the Black King is the only defender of the f7 square and, since there are two attackers, the King cannot actually defend that square!

Tactics don’t appear magically although great chess players can make it seem that way. They require a set up which means a combination (of moves that is). Take a look at the next example:

In the above example, Black has a Queen to White’s Rook which should give Black the advantage. However, White sets up a combination starting with 1. Rb8. Black can either move the King and lose the Queen or capture the Rook with 1…Qxb8. Things look good for Black since he still has his Queen. However, the true intentions of White’s move becomes clear with 2. Nd7+ which forks both Black’s King and Queen. After the Black King moves, 2…Ke8, White snaps off the Black Queen with 3. Nxb8. White has leveled the playing field with a fork. This is a very basic example of a combination. Remember, a combination is a group of moves that sets up the tactical play. No magic trick, just seeing a potential tactical pattern and putting it to good use.

So the key to studying tactics is to first understand the basic types of tactics you can employ, developing pattern recognition and then learning how to develop combinations, a series of moves that create a tactical opportunity. It takes time to develop these skills but it’s well worth the time spent. I highly recommend scattering a bunch of Black pawns and pieces on the chessboard and then randomly placing a White Knight near the board’s center. Then, see if you can find any forks. If you can’t find a fork immediately, make a legal move with the Knight and see if any forks appear. This helps start your pattern recognition abilities. Do the same with the Bishops, Rooks and Queen. The idea is develop your ability to see potential tactical positions. After you move a White piece, play the Black side of the board, looking for opportunities White may have for tactical plays and making moves to avoid them (after all, you need to avoid opposition tactics as well). The point here is to develop your tactical eye. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Analogies

The mark of a good teacher, be it in chess or economics, is their ability to take a complex concept or idea and explain it in a manner that makes sense to the student. Too often, a teacher will simply recite an explanation from a textbook, word for word, and call it a day. That’s not teaching. Good teaching is taking a complex subject and simplifying it, often using an analogy that students can relate to. I have a new high school student who was having trouble grasping some game principles, namely the idea of bringing pawns and pieces into the opening in a specific order. By order, I mean that we first control the center with a pawn or two, then introduce our minor pieces and so on. He asked me why follow that specific order if you could start controlling the board’s center by moving a Knight towards it on your first move? His reasoning was sound, in that a Knight moved to c3 or f3 (c6 or f6 for Black) controls two center squares as opposed to a pawn move which controls only one center square, the central squares being d4, d5, e4 and e5. I tried a couple of explanations but he still thought moving the Knight first made more sense. Of course, you can start the game by moving one of your Knights toward the center. However, when first learning the game, you should learn to start the game with a pawn move for a number of reasons.

One thing I do when working with a student for the first time is to find out what their interested in other than chess. Why do this? Because I can often develop analogies based on the student’s interests and provide them with explanations of key concepts that make sense because the analogies relate to something the student already understands. It turns out that my student is a budding military history buff which made my job that much easier. Here’s why:

Chess is many things, including a game of war. In fact, it’s really an excellent example of classical warfare and that’s the analogy I used. From the military formations employed by Roman soldiers in ancient times to the battles of the American Civil War, the theory of classical warfare is alive and well on the chessboard. In fact, the guerrilla warfare style of fighting seen in Vietnam and then in the Middle East can be found on the chessboard in the form of tricks, traps and tactics. Being a Buddhist, you might ask why I’d choose such a violent analogy. The answer is simple. I use analogies that best suit my students (within reason). While I abhor violence, I am a bit of a student of military history myself (specifically, the American Civil War) which is probably why I consider myself a “bad” Buddhist (or militant pacifist)! So let’s look at my student’s question regarding pawn and piece development in the opening from the vantage point of classical warfare.

Prior to the advent of truly mechanized warfare (tanks, planes, etc), fighting battles was mainly done by individual soldiers. During the American Civil War, for example, the majority of the fighting was done by large formations of troops (troop meaning a single soldier and troops meaning multiple soldiers). These troops fell into formations or lines of men with their rifles loaded and ready to fire. Fire upon what? Advancing enemy troops. Eventually, members of the opposing army would make it through the field of fire and hand to hand combat would ensue. During the battle of Gettysburg, tens of thousands of men were engaged in savage hand to hand combat in one of the war’s bloodiest battles. When I was describing this battle, which I had studied in great detail, I could see my student caught up in my retelling of this horrible historical event. From a teaching point, I had my student where I wanted him; using his imagination to take him to the front lines, smelling the acrid stench of gun powder, hearing the screams of wounded men and the deafening sound of hundreds of cannons as the sky turned dark because of the smoke of the many fires that burned across the battlefield. It was at this point that I stopped my story and uttered a single word, Pawns.”

“Pawns?” He replied. Yes, Pawns. All those men wearing either the colors of the blue or gray in the American Civil War were the battle’s pawns. Pawns are the game’s foot soldiers, like the Roman Legionnaires or American Grunts of World War Two. In any army, the overwhelming majority of its members are foot soldiers who individually are of little value but, when united together in large numbers, become a decisive force that can change a battle’s outcome. In classical warfare, it’s the foot soldier who goes out onto the field of battle first. In chess, pawns are your foot soldiers and, while they may be of the lowest relative value when considering them on an individual basis, they can work together and push back the enemy.

In classical warfare, generals would use their foot soldiers in an attempt to weaken the opposition’s army before bringing in more sophisticated weaponry such as archers or cavalry, in the case of the American Civil War. The point I made to my student was that you needed to weaken the enemy first and then bring in heavier weaponry. I emphasized the fact that the Knight in chess was the equivalent to the cavalry in classical warfare and that you simply wouldn’t send in the cavalry against a huge formation of foot soldiers until you weakened those foot soldiers with your own foot soldiers. The same holds true in chess. If you sent your Knights onto the field of battle (the chessboard) they could easily be driven back by Pawns. Why? Because a Pawn has a relative value of 1 point while the Knight’s worth 3 points. No one is going to trade a Knight for a Pawn (unless it leads to a huge positional advantage)! My student was starting to see the merits of employing Pawns first, then the minor pieces. We looked at another reason foot soldiers had to be the first into battle, namely because the rest of the army stood behind them!

In many classical battle formations, which were highly organized, you had an overwhelming majority of foot soldiers in the front, followed by archers, then cavalry and lastly any special weaponry. While the archers could shoot over the heads of the foot soldiers in front of them (and did to reduce enemy numbers), the rest of the army couldn’t get onto the battlefield until the foot soldiers had moved. I pointed out to my student that, with the exception of the Knight, the rest of his forces were trapped until some of his foot soldiers (Pawns) took to the field (the board). My analogy was really starting to sink in. My student is a highly intelligent young man but we have to remember that a “one size fits all” approach to teaching doesn’t work because no single explanation will work for every single individual. Analogies, analogies, analogies!

We looked at the other pieces in terms of our analogy and decided that Bishops were more like archers in a way because they could control important squares on the board from a great distance. However, unlike the archer who can shoot arrows over the heads of the foot soldiers, Bishops needed the Pawns to move out of the way in order to engage in the battle. Rooks became cannons in our analogy, more powerful than the Bishops (archers) because they’re not limited to squares of one color (as the Bishops are). The Queen was either a Gatling Gun (an early large, rapid fire machine gun) or a Weapon of Mass Destruction. I preferred Weapon of Mass Destruction, only to be used carefully and at the right time. Losing the Queen is on par with losing your biggest, baddest weapon while the enemy maintains theirs. As for the King? In Vietnam, the Vietcong would often have snipers try to shoot at American commanders, with the idea of removing the leader which would leave the troops unable to function (cutting off the head of the snake).

By using analogies you can reinforce key ideas and concepts, putting them into terms you understand. I highly recommend, when learning a new chess idea or concept, that you put it into terms you can understand. If you’re a lawyer, create a legal analogy. If you’re a carpenter, put it in terms of a construction project. If teaching chess, discover your students interests to help create meaningful analogies. Use analogies to guide you and you’ll really understand the subject matter you’re trying to master. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Before You Make That Move

You would never drive your car blindly into oncoming traffic because the results would be disastrous, right? Yet, how many of you have blindly made a move on the chessboard without putting much thought into that move because you became frustrated regarding exactly what to do? I’ve been guilty of doing this from time to time in the past. However, because I teach and coach chess full time, I tend to make fewer of these thoughtless moves due to long term training on my part. However, the novice player can easily become frustrated and throw caution to wind, making a move without thinking it through. This occurs because the novice or beginning player hasn’t yet developed an ordered mental check list for determining what move to make in response to the opposition’s last move. Players with greater experience have a large number of game principles not only committed to memory but in a sequential order that makes accessing the right principle for the given situation a very easy task.

When you first seriously study chess, you’re hit with a plethora of useful information in the form of books, DVDs and software. Sometimes, far too much information. In actuality, it’s not that it’s too much information, it’s just too much information at once. The beginner picks up a book or watches a DVD that gives them a great deal of knowledge on opening, middle or endgame theory. A number of principled ideas are presented with actual game examples. The beginner works through the examples carefully, learns the concepts presented and then sits down to play a game employing his or her new found knowledge. Suddenly, they’re hit with bits and pieces of the various principles just learned, all at once, rather than the single principle they need for the situation at hand. Confusion ensues and the beginner loses the game in question. Where this situation really rears its ugly head is when the beginner is faced with a position (similar but not exactly the same) that wasn’t in the book or DVD, which happens more often than not! Beginners tend to think that a position they’ve studied in a book is exactly how that position will appear in their games. It almost never is! This means the beginner may be faced with a position they’ve encountered in their book or DVD studies but doesn’t see it for what it is because the pawns and pieces are slightly different in arrangement than in the example they studied. To the beginner, the position seems foreign.

We’ll address this problem first because it’s key to everything else being discussed! Book and DVD examples come from real games. In a book about endgame play, the beginner might be studying Pawn, Bishop and King endgames. They’ve learned (book/DVD studies) how to promote their Pawn with the King and Bishop being on very specific squares (those found in the book/DVD examples). However, in their real life game, the King and Bishop they need to help promote their Pawn with are on squares not identically positioned as in the initial (book/DVD) example, maybe both King and Bishop are on the other side of the board and the pawn is on a different file. The beginner looks at his or her position and has a very slight recollection of what to do, based on the initial example. However, in the book or DVD example, the King and Bishop were much, much closer to their target squares. The beginner might automatically disregard any thoughts regarding the key concept they need to employ because the position isn’t exactly like the one found in the book or DVD, or they cannot see the pathway (in moves) that will get them to that exact position. Therefore, our intrepid beginner tries to think about another example from the book or DVD. The key point to take away from this is: A key idea or concept found in instructional material, such as a book or DVD, doesn’t rely on an exact position arising but rather on a similar position. Of course, coming to this conclusion does you no good if you can’t pull the idea from you memory palace (Hannibal Lecter’s name for his mentally stored thoughts) in an orderly manner.

Here’s what I mean regarding “orderly manner:” We all collect bits and pieces of information throughout our lives, some of it useful, some of it trivial. If you sat down one day and made a list of everything you knew, you’d be surprised at just how jumbled and eclectic the list was, seemingly out of order with mismatched topics bleeding into one another. It would be a confusing pile of information that would be extremely difficult to make heads or tails of, especially if you needed one specific piece of that information in a hurry (such as when faced with a chess clock counting down the seconds)!

Therefore, you have to employ a system for organizing that vast treasure trove of information into an ordered mental file cabinet or mental database. This is the seemingly daunting task faced by the novice chess player, organizing all those principles you’ve studied in the numerous chess books you’ve read and DVDs you’ve watched. The information you’ve gathered has to be accessible instantly. Of course, for experienced players, this information is extremely well organized within their memory and and can be thrown into their thought process at a moment’s notice. For the beginner, this is, again, a daunting task. Fear not though, because you can achieve this ability relatively quickly and it starts with a few pencils and a small stack of index cards. It’s that easy!

Acquire a stack of index cards and a few well sharpened pencils. I recommend pencils over pens because you can erase something written in pencil and you’re apt to do a fair amount of erasing when you first start this process!

You’ll start with three index cards, one for the opening, one for the middle-game and one for the endgame. Don’t worry about the remaining stack of blank index cards. Those will become filled with notes later on. It’s important that the beginner slowly build up their knowledge base one index card at a time. On your “opening” index card, you’re going to list the opening principles: Controlling the center of the board with a pawn, development of your minor pieces towards the center and castling. Then, you’re going to write down things you shouldn’t do on the back of the card, such as not making too many pawn moves, not bringing your Queen out early, not moving the same piece twice during the opening, etc. While there are more things you can have on your index cards regarding opening theory, as a beginner, you don’t want to have too much information yet, just the bare basics. When you’ve committed the above list of principles to memory and can recognize when to use them easily, only then should you make the list bigger.

For your middle-game index card write down piece activity to start. Too often, beginners launch premature attacks before fully developing their pawns and pieces to active squares. Next, write down attackers versus defenders, having more attackers than opposition defenders when attacking and more defenders when defending against opposition attacks. Also jot down the value of the pawns and pieces so you can determine whether an exchange of material is advantageous. Lastly write down the word “tactics” and the question “are there any potential tactical plays to be made.

For your endgame index card, write down “Kings before Pawns” so you know the King has to be in front of the Pawn you’re trying to promote in a King and Pawn versus King endgame. Another item to add is “watch and stop the passed Pawn” and “can my King reach the opposition’s Pawn before it promotes. Also write in bold letters “King opposition is key to pawn promotion when only Kings and Pawns are present.” On the back of the card, you might note a few methods of checkmate, such as two Rooks versus lone King and Queen and King versus lone King, etc.

Add the information you gather from your books and DVDs onto index card, but do so slowly. Make sure to put the key concepts in your own words. Simply copying a definition verbatim (exactly as it’s written) doesn’t mean you really understand it. By putting the definition in your own words, you’re insuring your complete understanding of the concept.

Just having a few key principles for each phase of the game written on index cards will help you recall crucial information quickly with little confusion and before long you won’t need the cards to guide you because the information will be committed to memory. Memory is a muscle to be developed over time. Of course, you can’t use these cards during tournament games and you’ll have to ask opponents, when playing casually, if they mind your index cards before you refer to them while playing. Of course, when playing a chess software program, you opponent has no say in the matter. As time passes and your knowledge base increases, you’ll have more and more information written down. However, much of it you’ll have committed to memory already so the task will not seem so daunting. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Chess Forum Survival Guide

A new adult student asked me for some good advice regarding the exploration of chess forums. I gave him a one word answer, “don’t!” “What do you mean don’t?” He replied. I diplomatically explained to him that while joining a chess forum could provide a conduit to a great deal of useful information, in most cases, he’d more likely end up falling down the endless rabbit hole of absolute madness found on many chess forums, never to be heard from again. He looked at me as if I was mad, so I sat him down to have a heart to heart chat about the subject. By conversation’s end, he looked just like a small child whose been told that there is no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy. I, on the other hand, felt like a bit of an old fashioned heel. Here’s the gist of what I told him:

Forums can be, and in many cases are, a great resource of practical information, allowing the forum user to save countless hours researching a topic on their own. Of course, I’m speaking purely theoretically, along the lines of “in a perfect world…” As I’m fond of mentioning, there’s a huge difference between theory and reality with chess forums (any many other types of forums to be fair). In theory, the chess forum should be your one stop chess shop when looking to acquire information regarding the game we love so deeply. In fact, you’d think that because we love chess so much, that chess forums would close to perfect in regards to useful information. They would perfect if the worst of human behavior didn’t cloud the numerous postings and threads. What behaviors are those you may ask? Ego and stupidity come to mind!

Now if I sound a bit harsh, let me state that there are a large number of chess forum contributors who really do present useful chess information. Many of these contributors are titled players who offer sound advice, regarding opening theory, for example. However, anyone on a forum can proclaim themselves an expert regardless of their qualifications. This means you might end up taking the advice of a player who barely understands the ideas behind the opening principles when preparing for an important game. Be cautious when taking forum advice regarding playing unless it comes from a qualified individual. With this said, I’ve seen some great explanations of difficult concepts from non-titled players. Like shopping for a car, you have to do your due diligence rather than simply buy the first car you see.

Forums also become a place where individuals can beat a subject to death, the old idea of flogging the dead horse. A subject is posted on the forum and, rather that providing a definitive and simple response, large numbers of people either confuse the issue or hijack the forum and send it in a completely different direction. You spend an hour reading through the threads and forgot what it was you were trying to get out of the posting in the first place. It can start out as a discussion regarding endgame theory and end up as an argument over who sells the best leather wingtip shoes in the greater London area. Unless you’re planning a trip to London and buying shoes while there, you may feel a bit cheated. Many a night I have sent out angry emails to forum members demanding back the hour of my life lost reading their dribble. My tip: If you scan through people’s postings regarding chess theory and you don’t see any algebraic notation within the comments, move on.

Of course, forums allow people to stand proudly at the bully pulpit and spew venomous rhetoric across the internet. Sadly, you find this on many chess forums. What starts as a seemingly Innocent discussion about a specific chess player, chess book, etc, turns into a free for all verbal slug-fest with the least qualified individuals throwing the hardest punches. You’d be surprised at how many people who cannot write to save their lives complain on forums about those who do write. Of course, constructive criticism is important but simply saying a chess book is garbage without offering some solutions to make it better is just old fashion bullying.

You also see chess enthusiasts complain about moves made during important, professional matches. This would be all well and good if the person complaining was a seasoned Grandmaster. However, the biggest complaints come from players whose ratings are on par with their shoe size (and IQ for that matter). “He should of played Bxd4 on move 27. What a dummy.” This from the guy who holds the world record for losing chess games to Scholar’s Mate.

Lastly, there’s the long winded types (which is why I’m trying to keep this to 1,000 words or less). Does it really require 124,375 words to make a point that could have been made employing 27 words (some of you are envisioning me)? Do you really need to use arcane words that we all have to look up in the dictionary? Great, your a wordsmith, but tone it down a bit. You must be a hoot at the local pub’s University Challenge night…

Since the thousand word limit I set for myself is nearing, I fear I must sign off. Enjoy your chess forums but heed my warning because I come this way but once (to quote Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man). My advice: If you put the time you spent reading chess forums into studying the game you’d become a lot better, a lot faster. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys don’t need no stinking forums….

Hugh Patterson

The Scotch Opening

Beginners who play with the White pieces often play timidly at first, pushing a pawn one square instead of two on their first turn. They worry that pushing a pawn to e4, for example, will leave that pawn stranded without protection whereas as pushing a pawn to e3 affords that pawn protection by it’s fellow pawns on f2 and d2. However, if you’re playing White you should aggressively go for control of the board’s center immediately. The Scotch Opening is a good opening for teaching aggressive play from the start. The classical Scotch comes into play after the moves 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. d4…exd4, 4. Nxd4…Nf6 and 5. Nc3, White immediately contests Black’s attempt to control the board’s center, a crucial concept (central control during the opening) as far as opening principles are concerned, while Black fights back to equalize the position. It should be noted that because black is a move behind, he or she should play to equalize or keep the position balanced rather than play for a fast attack during the opening.

The point the beginner should embrace is the idea that, because White moves first, White can gain control of the center before Black does and should therefore aim for central control from move one rather than making passive moves that allow Black to gain central control, turning the position around. The first two moves for both White and Black, 1. e4…e5 and 2. Nf3…Nc6, are the first two moves in a number of openings. Why? Because they fight for the center in a sound way. Move three of the classic Scotch, 3. d4…exd4 demonstrates the idea of White aggressively attacking Black’s own plan for control of the center. One of the reasons I teach this opening to beginners is because it clearly demonstrates the the opening principles in action, especially playing aggressively. A Scotch Opening might proceed a bit further like this:

Let’s review each move in terms of opening principles. Move one, for both players, 1. e4…e5, follows our first opening principle, controlling the center with a pawn. The pawns on e4 and e5 both control key central squares. The Queens and King-side Bishops are given room to develop. On move two (2. Nf3), White correctly develops (with tempo) the King-side Knight to its most active square, f3 where it attacks the e5 pawn while putting pressure on the d4 square. Tempo comes about because the Knight is attacking the pawn on e5, forcing Black to defend it which Black does with 2…Nc6. Black’s last move is a sound and logical choice because it develops a minor piece that not only protects the e5 pawn but also attacks the d4 square. Remember, Black needs to try and equalize the position and this move does just that! On move three, 3. d4, White attacks Black’s centralize pawn on e4, forcing Black to capture the d4 pawn. Does Black have to capture back?

If Black does something other than capture, instead developing the King-side Knight to f6, White can further gain tempo by playing either 4. d5, attacking the Queen-side Knight which forces it off of c6, or playing 4. dxe5 which attacks the King-side Knight, forcing it off of f6. Either way, White gains tempo and dislodges one of Black’s Knights off of an important square. Therefore, Black has to capture the pawn in order to avoid becoming further behind in tempo and sound position.

After Black captures the d4 pawn with 3…exd4, White can capture the pawn with 4. Nxd4. This moves works because the White Knight on d4 is protected by the White Queen on d1. If Black were to capture the White Knight on d4, the White Queen would simply capture it back which wouldn’t be good for Black from a positional point of view. Remember, as Black you want to keep things equalized. Therefore, Black plays 4…Nf6, attacking White’s e4 pawn. White develops a minor piece with 5. Nc3 which protects the pawn. Notice that White develops rather than attack the Knight on f6 with 5. e5. Attacking the Knight with a pawn would be silly since the c6 Knight would simply capture the attacking White pawn. Think development rather than all out attacking during the opening. Of course, White moving the pawn to d4 earlier is an attacking move, but one which was made to contest or stop Black’s attempt to control the center. There’s a difference between the two!

Black now plays 5…Bb4, pinning the c3 Knight to the King on e1. This move by Black stops White’s c3 Knight from being able to protect the e4 pawn due to the absolute pin. Black develops a new piece into the game while preventing White’s previously developed minor piece from doing its job, acting as a bodyguard for the e4 pawn. White plays 6. Nxc6. This does break an opening principle, not moving the same piece during the opening, but there’s a reason for breaking this principle. It should be duly noted that principles are not rules and can be broken if the reason is sound. Here, removing the Black c6 Knight, doubles up Black’s pawns on the c file after 6…bxc6. Note that using the d6 pawn to capture back on c6 would lead to a potential trade of Queens in which the Black King would have to capture back, forfeiting the right to castle. It also allows White to play 7. e5, attacking the f6 Knight. This last move by White is dangerous because Black moves the attacked Knight to e4 (7…Ne4) where it teams up with the Black Bishop on b4, attacking the pinned Knight. There are a few ways to deal with this last move by Black, such as 8. Qd4 which not only adds a second defender on the c3 Knight but protects the vulnerable f2 square from a potential fork by the Black Knight on e4.

Then there’s a more modern approach in which White goes after Black sooner. Take a look:

In this variation, which I first met on a wonderful Andrew Martin DVD on the Scotch, White immediately goes after the center with 2. d4 rather than developing the Knight on move two. After Black captures the d4 pawn (2…exd4), White develops the Knight with 3. Nf3. When Black plays 3…Nf6, White hits back with 4. e5, forcing the Black Knight off of the f6 square. When Black plays 4…Ne4, White captures the pawn on d4 with the Queen (5. Qxd4), attacking the Black Knight and covering the f2 square so Black can’t sacrifice the Knight by capturing on f2 which would fork the King-side Rook and Queen.

All in all, the Scotch is a great way to teach aggressive play to beginners. I highly recommend playing around with this opening, really experimenting with it, seeing what works and what doesn’t. You should always tinker with openings. While learning the mainlines and variations is sound, experiment a little. Be a scientist and explore the board. While you’ll find that many of your ideas can be refuted, you might find a little something in the way of a move that will surprise your opponent. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Parental Warning

This is more of a cautionary warning directed at chess parents and potential chess parents. I had an article written about the Scotch Opening all ready to submit, but a posting on Nigel’s Facebook page this weekend derailed my plans. What kind of social media posting could yield such power? A posting about a young chess player (eight years old) who was hit on the head for losing a junior level tournament. This absolutely caused my blood to boil. I told a friend of mine, who’s a former bank robber having made the FBI’s big time wanted list (he’s a college professor now, teaching writing not robbing) what he thought. He thought this to be a worse crime than armed robbery. Saying I was extremely angry regarding this issue was an understatement. So once again I am writing one of my open letters to the parents of young chess players. Think of it as a public service announcement regarding adults behaving badly, which alarmingly is becoming the norm at junior chess tournaments rather than the exception.

I suspect the root of this problem, parents and/or coaches verbally or physically belittling chess children, has to do with the adult in question’s shortcomings. In my experience as a coach who has spent a great deal of time in tournament halls watching my students/ teams play, I’ve noticed that one of the worst offenders is the parent who played chess in their youth. Typically, the adult in question was a decent junior player back in the day. They played many junior tournaments, laying claim to many a trophy. However, when they finally made it to the big regional tournament they went down in flames or worse yet, earned second or third place rather than first. For them, it was a matter of coming close but not close enough to take home the big prize. No matter though because they now have a son or daughter who can restore their family honor by making it to the regional tournament and grab that first place trophy. Yes, dear parent, you couldn’t do it so you’re now going to get your child to do it at all costs! Of course, you could substitute the parent who didn’t get first place in their elementary school’s finger painting competition with the parent who didn’t win the chess tournament as well. The point here is that some parents live vicariously through their children, forcing their children to right some silly wrong from their childhood. The result is the same, humiliation and suffering on the part of the child so the parent can rewrite their own history. This is how we lose potentially good players early on!

I’ve seen some adult behavior at tournaments that was borderline abuse and it angers me like nothing else. In my mind, it’s on par with beating an animal. Real adults simply don’t act this way. Case in point: I was at a junior tournament with one of my teams and had the opportunity to watch a parent as well as a coach have a complete meltdown when their team ended up in third place. Just placing at a large tournament is grounds for celebration but not for the team in question. Both the parent, who was acting as assistant coach, and the coach himself preceded to scream at the third place team. “You know why you’re losers? Because real winners come in first place, not third.” That was one of many memorable comments made by adults to a group of children ranging between nine and twelve years of age. Of course, there were lots of tears to be had by the third place team and not one of the other parents said anything to defend their children. Yes, I had something to say to say to the coach and parent in question (something I cannot repeat here due to rather colorful language, but not said within earshot of the children). Essentially, I told the two adult miscreants that they aught to be ashamed of themselves and they probably wouldn’t try the same tirade with other adults for fear of getting punched in the face. This is just the tip of the iceberg regarding things I’ve seen at junior tournaments.

Here’s the deal parents. You are not your children and should not try to rewrite your own competitive history by using your children as personal pawns so to speak. Let them find out about winning and losing in their own way. Belittling a child does absolutely nothing to support their interest in chess, in fact, just the opposite. A fair number of potentially good junior players learn to hate the game of chess thanks to their parents and coaches. Just because you lost the regional junior chess championship doesn’t mean you get behave like an insane dictator out for revenge. You lost so you have to accept it. Give your son or daughter a chance to win or lose on their own. They might not win this year but there’s always next year. Kindness and understanding will go a lot farther towards fostering a life long interest for chess.

Then there’s the parent who plays a little chess at their local chess club and insists on doing your job for you. This, coincidentally, is usually the same parent who lost the junior regional championship in their youth. When your car breaks down, you take it to the mechanic to be repaired. The mechanic is the expert at fixing cars which is why you pay him. You don’t stand around and tell him how to go about his business (if you do I guarantee he’ll charge you more). Therefore, if you’re a parent and you’re paying a professional chess coach to provide lessons, don’t tell the coach how he or she should teach. I have this problem from time to time.

The biggest problem with the “I’m going to help you teach chess” parent are the bad habits they’ve instilled in their children. I had a student whose father made a career of winning games against weaker players by employing tricks and traps in the opening. This translated to my student only being able to spring dubious traps on unsuspecting opponents in order to win. When the young man faced off against stronger players he lost because he was more interested in being a trickster rather than learning principled play. Many of my student’s bad habits come from well meaning family members. I probably spend just as much time breaking my student’s bad habits as I do teaching them good chess habits. It’s much easier to develop good habits than it is to break bad habits. Parents should leave the chess teaching to the professional. Seriously parents, you wouldn’t tell your surgeon how to take your appendix out during an emergency appendectomy so don’t do your chess teacher’s job.

Parents, you are the immediate role model that sets the standard for your children. When you act like a uncouth Barbarian your child thinks it acceptable. Don’t be that parent! Of course, the majority of my chess parents are wonderful, always being supportive of their children, win, lose or draw! They let their children learn life’s lessons on their own. To those winning is everything parents I say this: Your son or daughter might have what it takes to become a Grandmaster. However, you’ll never know if your behavior drives them away from the game. Treating your children badly because they don’t take home the first place trophy only makes you look bad. You had your chance now give your child a chance. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week when I’ll post my Scotch Opening article!

Hugh Patterson

Know Your Enemy

Actually, your opponent! Here’s what I mean: When given the chance you should learn a bit about your opponent or potential opponent’s playing abilities. Professionals do this to a high degree. Why should you? Think of it like this: Imagine you’re going to drive in an automobile race of some sort. You’re given no details whatsoever and show up with your old 1983 Honda only to discover that it’s a Formula One race. In chess, we study our opponent’s game so we know what we’re going up against. Why should you bother as an average player? Read on!

Professionals players carefully study the games of those they’re going to play. They learn what openings their opponent’s are going to employ, type of position (open, closed, etc) favored by the opposition and so on. The professional does research. They do so in order to increase their ability to win when facing a particular opponent of equal or greater strength. We all do this outside of chess. When you’re facing a test in school, you study or prepare for it. When you drive somewhere you’ve never been before, you prepare by studying a map.

Of course, it can be a bit more difficult for beginners to prepare for a game against other beginners because of a lack of recorded games. Serious players play in rated tournaments which mean that their games are recorded. By accessing those games, one can study the playing style of a potential opponent. Since beginners often don’t record their games, it’s more difficult to assess their playing abilities. However, there are a few things you can do to get to know your opponent.

The first thing to do is to hang out at a place they play, be it a chess club or local cafe, and watch their games. Of course, you don’t want to march up and announce “I want to play you so I’m here to study your games.” However, it’s not unusual for people to stand around watching chess games, so don’t feel uncomfortable doing so. I watch potential opponents play before I sit down with them. It’s called doing your homework or due diligence.

Watching an opponent playing is only half the battle. The other half is determining the details, such as the openings they favor for both black and white. Make a mental note of the opening they employ. Then go home and study that opening. This gets you prepared from move one. Most beginning or novice players tend to keep it simple, playing openings that don’t require a lot of preparation. However, if they try to tackle more complex openings such as the Ruy Lopez or Sicilian Defense, they often leave themselves vulnerable due to their lack of knowledge regarding the complexity of these openings. This translates to potential mistakes on their part. Note their weaknesses, such as when they make an off or bad move during the opening and how the opposition responds. Every small crumb of knowledge can be put together to create an advantage.

During the middle game, watch to see if they employ sound tactics. This can be a telling sign! If the player your watching is better at tactics than you, plan on trying to keep the position closed in order to remove any potential tactical positions. The key here is to close the position. Too often, novice players who find tactical plays can only do so when the position is wide open because they tend to favor long distance pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queens. Make a mental note of what piece or pieces they favor. Every chess player has a piece of two they favor because they know how to use them well. It’s all in the details!

Endgame play is an area most novice players have limited experience with because most of their games conclude long before the endgame. I’ve seen players take down a stronger opponent in the endgame because of this. Novice players tend to concentrate on middle-game tactics. Therefore, if you get the opportunity to trade down to an endgame, provided you’ve done some endgame studies, do so.

Then there’s the psychological aspect to the opposition. Is your potential opponent a show off who takes wild chances? You’d be surprised how many novice players can succumb to their egos by taking big risks. The premature attack is a common mistake made by novice players. They launch an attack on the f7 (or f2) pawn thinking that trading a Bishop and Knight for your f pawn and Rook (after castling King-side) is good for them during the opening. Don’t be afraid to make that trade of material because you will have the minor piece majority which is crucial during the opening. If your potential opponent launches early attacks, make a mental note of the pieces used so you can look for this pattern early when you play them.

Watch for tricks and traps when observing games. Tricks and traps are the bread and butter of beginning or novice players. When you see a player executing a trick or trap, note the set up. When you get home, research it and see how to avoid it. More often than not, the player employing the trick or trap will use it repeatedly so expect it when you sit down to play them. I don’t suggest learning your own tricks and traps to use against them because good principled play trumps tricky play. However, you should know how to defend against tricks and traps.

You can learn a great deal from watching the games of others, not just top level games but the games of those players you encounter. Just because someone isn’t a titled player doesn’t mean they can’t come up with some stunning ideas that will help you. You have to keep your eyes open! I watch the games of my students not just because I’m their teacher and coach but because they sometimes come up with great stuff that I can use in my own playing. So your homework for the week is to go out and do some scouting. Go to your local chess haunt and observe someone. See what you can learn from a game or two of theirs. Do some prep work and then challenge them. You’d be surprised at how much it will help. Here’s a game until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Into the Crystal Ball

Have you ever played someone who seems to anticipate every move you make as if they have a crystal ball that allows them a glimpse into the game’s future? It happens a great deal to beginners who sit mystified at the chessboard, wondering how their opponent had developed such an impressive skill. When they learn that their opponent can think many moves ahead, beginners start to believe that their skilled opponents are thinking ten or eleven moves ahead. This leaves the beginner, who can barely think a move ahead, feeling as if there’s no future for them as far as improvement is concerned. What it I told you that you only have to think one and a half moves ahead to improve your chess? Would you, the beginner, feel better about your journey towards improvement?

I first came across the concept of thinking one and a half moves ahead when I acquired a copy of Power Chess for Kids by Charles Hertan. In the book, students are taught to think one and a half moves ahead as their starting point. One and a half moves ahead translates to the move you make, your opponent’s best response and your follow up (move) to your opponent’s best response. I quickly incorporated this method into my teaching program and it has worked extremely well.

However, it sounds easier than it actually is to employ this method when you’re first starting your chess career. Here’s why: When you ask a beginner what their plan is, they’ll more often than not tell you that they’re going to make this move and their opponent is going to make that move which will be followed up by another move and so on. The beginner proudly states that he or she is thinking three or four moves ahead. Except there’s one big problem, the beginner is thinking of opposition moves they want their opponent to play, not the moves their opponent is actually going to play. There’s a difference here. Your opponent is simply not going to play into your hands by making the moves you want them to make. They’re going to make moves (hopefully for them) that derail your plan! After all, they want to win as well!

Therefore, if you think in these terms you’re rarely, if ever, going to win games. When you consider that first move in our one and a half move system, you need to think of a sound move from the start. For example, young players love Scholar’s Mate. In four moves they can deliver checkmate with the light squared Bishop (white) on c4 and the white Queen delivering the mate on f7 (either via f3 or h5). If the person manning the black pieces is oblivious to this fast checkmate they’ll lose in four moves. However, anyone with a bit of playing experience can easily deflect this mating attempt. Thus, playing for Scholar’s Mate is a good example of making moves in our system that are unrealistic regarding sound play.

Move two, our opponent’s response to our first move is the first thing we need to consider when plotting our own first move. When considering a candidate move, we should pretend to switch places with our opponent and see if we can come up with as a crushing response. Doing so allows us to test the validity of our potential move before committing to it. If you don’t do this, you won’t get far. It’s that simple. You have to consider the strongest response to your potential or candidate move before making it. Doing so allows you to see the position through the eyes of the opposition which can shed light on potential problems on both sides of the board. Chess is all about seeing the position at hand from both sides and solving problems. Look at every pawn and piece when considering a response to your move idea because you’re less likely to miss that killer opposition reply. It takes time to do this but you’ll develop patience which is key!

Patience is a critical factor here! Patience may be one of the hardest things a beginner has to learn. It literally takes time to develop patience and he or she who takes his or her time when playing will do best in the long run. Beginners have a tendency to play fast. If one’s opponent makes a fast move, the beginner will often respond in kind, thinking of this quick response as a way to show their opponent that “I’m just as smart as you and can play just as fast.” Wrong! Just because someone decides to drive past you on the highway at 110 miles per hour doesn’t mean you should step on the gas pedal to match their speed. Common sense says just because someone does something foolish doesn’t mean you should! Take your time when examining potential moves and responses by your opponent.

Where things get a bit tricky is when you have to come up with the response to your opponent’s move. It’s the starting point for understanding the art of the combination. Most tactical plays are based on a combination of moves. While you do sometimes fall into a situation in which a tactical play, such as a fork or skewer, comes out of nowhere because your opponent made a poor move, you usually have to set up a tactical play. Therefore, getting good at coming up with that third move, your response to your opponent’s move, is extremely important. It’s called follow through!

During the opening, your first moves might be simply to develop a pawn or piece to a good square. Let’s say you want to develop your Queen-side Knight to c3. You eye the c3 square as a great place for the Knight. Then you think of your opponent’s response which might be using his or her King-side Bishop (moving it to b4) to pin your Knight on c3 to your King on e1. Simply knowing this pin is possible goes a long way towards helping you determine whether you want to make this move. You then think to yourself, if I move my Knight to c3 and my opponent uses their King-side Bishop to pin the Knight to the King, what are my options, my best response? You examine the board and see that you can Castle out of the pin. This is the way to employ the one and a half moves ahead concept.

This thinking can be applied to the middle and endgame as well. In the middle game, it’s all about tactics for the novice player. Therefore, you need to take this approach from a tactical perspective. If I make this move, the start of the tactical combination, how can my opponent stop my tactical play. Don’t think in terms of I’ll do this and he’ll do exactly as I want. Your opponent is going to do everything humanly possible to stop your tactical idea. If, after look at all your opponent’s material, you see that he or she can’t stop the tactical play, carry on. If you see that your idea can be rebutted, come up with another one and a half move plan.

In the endgame, things become a little clearer with less material on the board. However, just because there are fewer pieces on the board doesn’t mean things get easier. Endgame calculations, unlike middle-game calculations, can be a lot deeper, meaning players are thinking a lot more than one and a half moves into the future. Beginners should still employ the one and a half move system rather than try to calculate five moves ahead. Keep it simple until you gain more calculation experience.

There’s only one way to develop your ability to calculate moves ahead and that is experience, playing a lot of chess. However, if you use the one and a half move system, you’ll get better at calculating a lot faster. The point here is that you have to have a plan of action with every move. If you have no plan, you might as well be giving your opponent free turns because that’s what the opposition will garner with every bad move made, a free opportunity for them to further develop their pieces or launch a solid attack. Patience is your best friend when playing chess. Good positions must be carefully shaped the way in which a sculptor creates art from a lump of clay or stone. Always put yourself into the opposition’s shoes when considering a response to your move and make sure you have a follow up. Do this and you’ll be playing better chess in no time! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Why Learn Openings?

A young student of mine asked me why he should learn a number of different openings rather than simply apply sound opening principles. On the surface, you might dismiss this question as rather silly, but he brings up a good point. When learning how to play chess, we learn that there are specific principles to be followed during the opening phase of the game. Beginners are taught the idea of allowing opening principles to guide them when they’re not sure what move to make. It’s easy to see why beginners might think that the opening principles are the cure all for studying opening theory. Of course, opening principles will take the beginner a long way on their journey towards improvement. However, they will only take you so far.

One of the problems that keeps many players from studying opening theory is it’s complexity. Let’s face it, even the most enthusiastic improving player will become glassy eyed when faced with reading and playing through the ECO (Encyclopedia of Chess Openings). I’ve seen beginners become catatonic upon opening this book for the first time. It might as well be written in Sanskrit as far as the novice player is concerned! I know plenty of decent casual players who don’t know a lot of opening theory, but manage to apply opening theory and reach a playable middle-game. However, it is important to know a bit about opening theory if you plan on playing well over the long run. With my students, I feed them a little opening theory at a time rather than shoving the entire ECO down their throats at once. So what’s the big deal with knowing openings and opening theory?

Imagine if every move your opponent made during the first ten to fifteen moves (the opening) gave you a clue as to what their next move would be. You’d essentially know what was coming and could counter that future move with a good move of your own. Now image that each move your opponent makes during the opening leaves you drawing a blank except in regards to opening principles. I think I’d rather be in the scenario in which each move provides a clue! Understanding a little opening theory allows you to know what’s coming next from your opponent.

You don’t have to know every move, both mainline and variations, of a specific opening. You just have to know the basics, say the first ten moves if you’re a beginner. If you know the first ten moves of ten openings, five for black and five for white, you’ll have a much easier time navigating the starting phase of the game. This means learning ten openings and the first ten moves of each opening. It is nowhere near as hard as the beginner might think. Here’s how I teach this idea:

I start with the Italian Opening for two reasons. First, it clearly illustrates the basic opening principles. Second, it can transpose into the Evan’s Gambit, which I also teach. I then introduce the Ruy Lopez because of move three, 3. Bb5. We compare the placement of the Bishops, c4 in the Italian and b5 in The Ruy Lopez. The idea here is to build on the foundation of 1. e4, 2. Nf3, so that learning and remembering move order in the various openings is easier. Next up, The Scotch, again building on those first two moves. Since I work with beginners and improving players, we tend to avoid certain openings due to their complexity, which is over the heads of less experienced players. Next we learn the King’s and Queen’s Gambit in that order. Since my students have met the Evan’s Gambit, they know why we sacrifice a pawn and understand the basic nature of Gambit play. Now we look at openings for black.

We start with 1…e5, working on maintaining equilibrium against white. Too often, beginners playing black will either play too timidly or launch premature attacks. Therefore, we learn how to balance the position into the middle-game. We don’t define this first opening but rather employ principled opening play. Then we look at the French Defense and the Caro Kann. Only then do we look at the King’s Indian Defense. The reason for this order is because learning the King’s Indian first can leave students playing too defensively, not going after the center at the right time. Lastly we look at the Sicilian which takes the most amount of time due the numerous lines. I recommend that my students don’t play the Sicilian until they really understand the other openings for black I teach.

When I teach these openings, we learn three moves at a time. With the Ruy Lopez, for example, we learn 1. e4, 2. Nf3 and then 3. Bb5. White’s third move is important to grasp or understand regarding the opening principles. In the Italian Opening, the Bishop is placed on c4 (3. Bc4) which directly influences the center. When the Bishop is placed on b5, it indirectly effects the center because, if white exchanges the Bishop on b5 with the Knight on c6, black’s e5 pawn is no longer defended. The b5 Bishop therefore uses the threat of exchanging itself for the black Knight on c6 as an example of proper opening principles, control (indirectly) of the center.

We then look at the next three moves in each opening, going over how those moves adhere to the opening principles. Each subset of three moves is gone over with the previous three moves until my students not only know the move order of each opening but the underlying principles or mechanics behind them. In the end, my student learn basic opening theory while strengthening their understanding of opening principles. While you don’t have to memorize the ECO, having a basic knowledge of opening theory will take you a lot farther in your chess careers. Try my suggestion. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson